Home Maintenance for the First-Time Buyer

home maintenance man shoveling snowFirst-time buyer Anna Daugherty learned the hard way that home maintenance is a new owner's responsibility. "One thing we completely forgot about was actually very simple. We forgot to get a shovel," says the Lansing, MI, resident. "This weekend, we had seven inches of snow fall in a short amount of time, burying us in snow--and no shovel!"

While going from being a renter to a first-time buyer is a transformative experience, it also brings a whole new set of home maintenance responsibilities. With no more 1-800-Landlord number to call when things go wrong or need repair, you're now fully in charge of maintaining this most important asset.

Just as the joys of home ownership appear in ways large and small, so do home maintenance needs and expenses. Here are tips to help first-time buyers stay on top of home maintenance tasks.
Gear up for every need: Home maintenance is a year-round job, so invest in the tools you'll need to tackle typical projects.

Avoid problems with snow days and other seasonal challenges by gearing up with a set of basic hand tools and an arsenal of lawn and garden implements. And while you're at it, invest in a storage system for home maintenance equipment that keeps everything neat and within reach, whether in your garage or a stand-alone tool shed.

Get to know the pros:First-time buyers can also be prepared by assembling your very own "home team" of contractors and servicepeople well before you ever need them. Find local home maintenance specialists through the recommendations of family and friends, and by connecting with referral services like ServiceMagic. The Realtor who helped you find your new home can also put you in touch with pros whose work quality and ethics can be trusted.

"Put your resources in your Realtor to obtain a list of favorite painters, plumbers, electricians and handymen because then you know you've got referrals from someone you can trust, and typically, that's the kind of person you want to do business with," says Diann Patton, Coldwell Banker Real Estate's consumer specialist and the sales manager/broker/owner in Grass Valley, CA.

Understand your home's operating systems: Understanding the basics of your home's mechanical systems is a must for first-time buyers, even if you call a pro for major home maintenance and repair issues. Know where your main water line is and how to shut it off in an emergency. Get acquainted with the fuse or breaker box, and label essential and non-essential systems for quick reference and energy-saving shutdowns when you're away for extended periods of time. Set a routine for heating and cooling system maintenance, including annual tune-ups by an HVAC contractor, frequent filter changes, and sealing leaky ductwork.

Maintain the exterior: Your home's "envelope" requires care not only for curb appeal but also to protect its structural elements and energy efficiency. Immediately address such regular home maintenance issues as damaged siding, clogged gutters and insufficient grading that keeps water near the structure. Also do a regular, thorough check of your roof's condition so that you can address trouble spots and stay ahead of repair needs.

Make utility bills manageable: Unlike most rental situations, home ownership puts you in charge of covering all utilities. If you're a first-time buyer with sticker shock when you get your power and water bills, take steps to manage your energy dollars as well as home comfort. Budget for foreseeable seasonal fluctuations in energy needs (like summer cooling and winter heating), and check into plans offered by local utility providers that allow you to distribute costs evenly over a 12-month period rather than paying right-now prices. Also look for ways to trim costs with minor energy-saving improvements, like installing a programmable thermostat or fitting the bath with WaterSense-approved fixtures.

Establish a contingency fund: Even if you're in a brand-new home that's under warranty, it's wise to have a contingency fund for the unexpected home maintenance expenses that invariably crop up.

"You really have no idea what could or might go wrong," advises Patton. "For instance in my community just a couple of weeks ago, we had a horrific snowstorm that actually put trees down through a lot of people's roofs...How do you plan for that? Fortunately as a homeowner, you have insurance to deal with those issues, but you want to have contingency funds to cover your deductible if you have an insurance claim, for plumbing leaks or roof leaks--anything like that."

Maintaining such a financial safety net will come in handy when you least expect it, and also provide backup as you approach longer-term home improvement needs and decisions. Add this critical element to your home maintenance strategy, and you'll be able to relax and enjoy the privileges of home ownership all the more.

Tom Kraeutler is a home improvement expert for AOL Real Estate and host of "The Money Pit,"a nationally syndicated home improvement radio program offering home improvement tips and ideas.

Thinking about adding value with home improvements? Here are some AOL Real Estateguides to help you, whether you're selling or staying.

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